Hours after a burglary at a designer jeans store in St. Louis’ upscale Central West End neighborhood, at least 16 city police officers received an email alert with surveillance photos of the car believed to belong to the suspects — and an offer of a reward of at least $1,000 for any officer able to locate it.
The email was not from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the police force that employs them and that residents fund with their taxes. Instead, it was from a retired city police detective named Charles “Rob” Betts, who also employs them at his private company, The City’s Finest.
The City’s Finest is no mere security firm. With about 200 officers moonlighting for it, it’s the biggest of several private policing companies that some of St. Louis’ wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods have hired to patrol public spaces and protect their homes and businesses.
These neighborhoods buy patrols from Betts’ firm and other private police companies because, they say, they do not get enough from a city police department that struggles to provide basic services.
Under department rules, officers have the same authority when working for these companies that they have while on duty, one reason their services are in such demand. They can investigate crimes, stop pedestrians or vehicles and make arrests. And the police department requires that they wear their police uniforms when they’re working in law enforcement or security in the city, creating confusion about who they’re working for.
The result is two unequal levels of policing for St. Louis residents and businesses. Low-income and minority residents do not have the resources to hire police through a private company, and the department has struggled to provide patrols in parts of the city that suffer high rates of violent crime.
Meanwhile, the more affluent neighborhoods, which are less affected by violent crime, have raised millions of dollars to pay companies like The City’s Finest for granular attention from the same officers the police department has said it doesn’t have enough of. Officials in some of those areas praise The City’s Finest. They credit it with suppressing crime and helping merchants stay in business.
Dwinderlin Evans, a city alderwoman who represents some of the areas of St. Louis with the highest crime rates, including the neighborhoods of The Ville and Greater Ville, said the private policing system is unfair, “especially when you have neighborhoods that can’t afford to pay for extra policing.”
What’s more, The City’s Finest has raised its pay to exceed the department’s overtime rate — in essence outbidding the police department for its own workforce. Betts, in fact, has been clear that his company has to pay more to attract city police officers who might otherwise opt to work overtime.
Following questions from ProPublica, St. Louis Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Heather Taylor said the city planned a “complete review” of how off-duty officers are used and will hire a firm to “review for best practices that are going to be equitable to officers, the community and the city.”
Taylor acknowledged that, while working as a St. Louis police officer before retiring in 2020, she received an email offering a reward from The City’s Finest to work on a case. She said rewards for off-duty officers are “a practice we’re reviewing, that’s for sure.” ProPublica has identified four cases where The City’s Finest offered rewards.
Taylor said the bigger problem was low pay that makes secondary employment necessary. City police officers make a starting salary of $50,615, about 9% less than in neighboring St. Louis County and 13% less than in suburban Chesterfield.
Meanwhile, St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green proposed boosting officer pay and benefits and bolstering community policing through a program called “Cops on the Block.”
St. Louis is far from the only U.S. city where neighborhood groups have hired off-duty officers. In Minneapolis, Atlanta, Kansas City and Dallas, neighborhood groups contract directly with local police departments or with the officers themselves. But in those cities, such patrols are typically managed by city officials and officers are accountable to department supervisors.
In other cities, such as Chicago, officers may work off-duty patrolling neighborhoods for private security companies, but they generally do not wear their police uniforms or represent themselves as police officers. The growing presence of off-duty officers in upscale Chicago neighborhoods has drawn concern from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who said she didn’t want “a circumstance where public safety is only available to the wealthy.”
She added, “That’s a terrible dynamic.”
Experts in policing said they had never seen a system like the one in St. Louis. That system is “an extreme example of a pattern that can be found all across the country,” said David Sklansky, a professor of criminal law and procedure at Stanford University. “Public policing, for all its problems — and it has many, many problems — does represent a commitment to protect people equally, not based on their wealth or political power,” he said. “So the privatization of policing represents a retreat from that promise.”
Even some officials in well-to-do neighborhoods acknowledge disparities the arrangement creates. “It’s kind of a screwed-up system,” said Luke Reynolds, chair of the special business district in the city’s Soulard neighborhood, known for hosting one of the nation’s biggest Mardi Gras celebrations.
Reynolds said that it was unfair that Soulard has “affluence compared to a lot of other neighborhoods and gets extra patrols. It’s kind of screwed up that the police department can’t do their job and doesn’t have enough people, yet they can staff secondary patrols.”
Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom and interim Police Chief Michael Sack declined interview requests.
Public servants, including police officers, are generally prohibited from accepting gratuities or rewards. It is a felony in Missouri to offer a benefit to a public servant for any specific action they take in that role. The St. Louis police manual says officers cannot accept gratuities, rewards or compensation — unless they are for work outside the department.
While Missouri law does not address whether it is legal for an off-duty police officer to accept payments, courts in other states, including Oklahoma and Connecticut, have held that an off-duty officer accepting rewards or gratuities from private individuals for their actions within the jurisdiction that employs them runs contrary to public policy. In 1899, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was against public policy for federal marshals to receive a private reward for capturing a fugitive, comparing it to extortion.